I’ve been helping aspiring artists in their journey of artistic development for a long time now. Initially, it was only in the cgtalk forums where I answered questions, gave in-depth critiques, and wrote posts on various art and creativity-related subjects. During my years working as an art director in video games and animation, I also mentored other artists. These experiences eventually culminated in a workshop that I’ve been teaching for CGWorkshops here at CGSociety since 2010, titled Becoming a Better Artist

Several years ago, I wrote a post in the Art Techniques & Theories subforum at cgtalk called “Top 10 Tips For Becoming a Better Artist.” That post circulated around the web in the art communities, and soon ImagineFX magazine asked if they could publish it. Of course I said yes, since I was one of the very first artists they did a feature interview with in the inaugural issue of ImagineFX. At the time I was also putting together the content for the workshop (which took about a year and a half altogether to brainstorm, write the lecture notes, record the videos, and design the assignments), and those ten tips became the philosophical foundation of the workshop’s creative vision.  

Art by Rob Chang

Over the years, a lot of people have read those original ten tips in the Art Techniques & Theories subforum, in ImagineFX magazine, and repostings on the web, but there are still a lot of people who don’t know about these tips and could benefit immensely from them. So it is with that in mind these tips are now published in this article.

It is my hope these tips will help aspiring artists who are feeling lost and frustrated and could really use some guidance from someone who understands the psychological/emotional struggles that they are going through and can lead them out of the dark and help them fulfill their aspirations. If that description fits you, then read on. When you’re done, make sure you visit the Art Techniques & Theories subforum at cgtalk for more helpful tips on effective artistic development. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask, and if you want in-depth critiques on your work, just post in the WIP subforums at cgtalk (I’m active in the 2D WIP subforum, but if you have 3D works you want critiqued, you can send me a private message about it). 

Now, on to those ten tips. 

1) Buckle down and really learn the foundations (composition, perspective, anatomy/figure, color theory, values/lighting, etc.). You cannot really call yourself a competent artist until you have done so. Ideally you should not only learn them, but master them, and when you do, you're not merely competent, but confident and authoritative as well. This doesn’t just apply to beginners, but also advanced and professional artists as well. Many experienced artists have glaring weaknesses—for example, an artist may be great at inanimate objects and landscapes, but his anatomy and figure is lagging far behind. We could all gain from strengthening our foundation knowledge and skills, and I definitely have my own weaknesses I need to work on.  

 2) Break out of tunnel vision. If you are obsessed with anime/manga, superhero comics, photorealism, or any kind of specific style and have not been exposed to or have explored fully other art movements, styles, cultures, and time periods, then you need to become more well-rounded. Tunnel-vision is creatively crippling and it breeds imitation and homogenized artists who can't think outside the established box. Cross pollinating and hybridizing various art styles and influences is the healthiest and most creatively interesting.  

3) Don't be a mindless artist. Think about why you are creating. Is your only interest to make "cool shit" and "hot babes"? Do you even have something to say as a human being living in a complex society? Is everything about your creative works completely disposable and meaningless? If you are only serving the basest level of gratification, never involving the higher motivations like intellect or emotions, then maybe it's time to dig a little deeper. You have a soul--use it. This isn’t just about being “deep”—it’s about quality. For example, the difference between crass and shallow sci-fi/fantasy/horror films and cinematic masterpieces is usually in how much heart and soul the creators poured into the writing. 

John Singer Sargent

4) Don't slavishly copy reality--we invented the camera for that. As artists, we have the power to stylize, exaggerate, simplify, selectively detail, idealize, use abstract and surreal approaches--it would be a shame to not utilize those powers. I'd rather see works that have obvious artistic footprints left by the artist, than works that could be mistaken for photographs. Artists like John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, Richard Schmid, Gustav Klimt, Nicolai Fechin...etc are far more interesting to me than artists whose works are so uptight and rendered to death that all the expressiveness, spontaneity, and life has been snuffed out. (If your job requires photo-realism, then a job is a job, but what about your personal works?)

5) Surface polish is the last thing you should worry about. Loose or tight brushwork, sketchy or clean lines—they’re simply options you choose from to match different subject matters. Much more important is the underlying structure and foundation knowledge. Surface polish is an ongoing experiment, and it's always changing and evolving. A good artist should be able to utilize all kinds of surface treatment approaches effectively, not just locked into one and knowing nothing else. Experiment often with different mediums and styles the way chefs experiment with different cooking ingredients. Doing so, you'll naturally gain insight into how each is best used and then be able to deploy whatever technique that suits the image you're working on.

6) Do not simply practice hard--you must also practice smart. Merely filling up sketchbooks aimlessly with doodles is not smart. You must target your weaknesses and not dwell on things you can already do in your sleep. Be scientific about it. Treat it like a science experiment with a structured plan that attacks the problem efficiently with purpose. Analyze failures. Avoid wasting time on things that don’t serve an obvious purpose. Observe, deconstruct, and recognize the structures and patterns--be it the scientific physical laws of our world (light, shadows, colors, stress and compression points of fabric, etc.), or creative approaches that yield the most effective results (utilizing contrast in color, values, and shapes, varying edge qualities, etc.).

7) Have realistic expectations; Rome was not built in a day. It takes years of working hard and working smart to get good. Filling up a sketchbook or two means nothing in the grand scheme of things—it takes so much more. Artists don't just draw a few dozen heads and then get it right--they draw hundreds and thousands over the years, decades, and they don't do it mindlessly--they are studying the underlying bone structure and muscle shapes, the effects of various facial expressions, lighting conditions, age, the idiosyncrasies of ethnicities, etc. And that's just the human head. The journey to becoming a good artist is in reality more like a lifelong journey of creative fulfillment. 

8) Learn to take criticism. An artist living among other people will get comments, and if you cannot take criticism you will be miserable. Treat criticism as valuable arsenal for your growth. When you get both negative and positive comments, you should be grateful and behave graciously. A bruised ego is an ego that's being conditioned to be stronger and more open-minded. If you cannot see beyond your bruised ego, you will become crippled by it. As a beginner, you may not get very helpful critique other than “keep learning your foundations,” and this is because at your level, everything you do is wrong. Keep learning the foundations and you’ll automatically improve.

9) Be a well-rounded person. Learn about the world we live in--history, politics, religion, economics, science, literature, music, photography, film...etc. You'd be surprised how the world is interconnected and so many things have direct or indirect relationships with each other beyond your initial understanding. The more insight you have about the world we live in, the better artist you will be. Maintain healthy relationships, since family, friends, and lovers often form the core of our emotional expression as human beings and as artists. An intellectually and emotionally sterile or vacant person will have very little to offer as an artist. Being close-minded, ignorant, and disconnected is nowhere near as fulfilling as being open-minded, knowledgeable, and connected. 

10) Your personality may not be suited to become a good artist. If you are impatient, cannot sit still, lose focus quickly, easily frustrated, lack motivation, cannot take criticism, wants only instant gratification and unwilling to pay your dues, then you won't become a good artist. Whether you’re “talented” is not the deciding factor--it's whether you can work hard/smart, and your ability to persevere through hardship, frustration, self-loathing, and discouragement that will determine your chances of success. You must also embrace the entire journey. If you’re always miserable instead of enjoying the process, then maybe you love the idea of being an artist but your personality isn’t suited for it. If that describes you, don’t feel bad. You might discover something else out there that you’re passionate about and actually enjoy the process as well.

As you can see, these tips cover not only the practical concerns of becoming a better artist, but also the emotional, psychological, and philosophical aspects. I mentioned previously that these ten tips were the basis in which my workshop grew out of, and essentially, Becoming a Better Artist is a lot like taking all ten tips and breaking them down into lessons that could be taught in a logical manner, and then on top of that, add other important content such as the critical foundations of visual art, professional techniques and workflows, approaches to developing a compelling creative vision, and optimal strategies for artistic growth and career development. The goal was to create a holistic art education experience that’s unlike any other out there. I have taught close to a thousand students since 2010, any many of them have told me that the most precious lessons they learned from my workshop were things they were never taught in art schools or other online courses. 
Art by Rob Chang

I have been helping fellow artists in my free-time long before I started teaching the workshop, so even if you never take my workshop, I’ll still help you however I can, so just ask whatever questions you have or post your work for in-depth critiques in the cgtalk subforums I mentioned. And if you decide to take my workshop, then I’m looking forward to seeing you in the classroom and developing a long-term relationship that will continue into the future, as I have done with my alumni students over the years. I still mentor them regularly in the private alumni forum created especially for my workshop, and it’s a wonderful tight-knit community where people love to help each other, no questions go unanswered, and no one is mistreated or ignored.

Remember, whether you end up living a fulfilling life of creativity depends on the attitude you choose to do the traveling with. So travel with an open-mind, a kind and sincere heart, and keep that passion burning.